Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you find your muse. Mine was a tall, boisterous redhead with an outrageous laugh, a contagious smile, and an Emmy award on her mantle.
In 2002, I had the crazy idea that I could start a huge book-signing event here in my little hometown. I rented our local convention center, sent out hundreds of invitations to authors who lived within driving distance, and crossed my fingers. Low and behold, over 100 of them agreed to come. With Barnes & Noble on board to supply the inventory, I turned my attention to finding a ‘draw’ — someone noteworthy enough who had also written a book and would draw a crowd to my event.
It was then that I read a review of a recently published book, Don’t Look Back, We’re Not Going That Way. It was the autobiography of an Emmy-award winning actress, Marcia Wallace. Now if you’re anywhere near my age, you remember Marcia as Carol Kester, Bob Newhart’s lovable, zany secretary on the 70s sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. If you’re a millennial, you know her for the role that won her an Emmy as the voice of elementary school teacher Edna Krabappel on the animated series The Simpsons.
Using my journalistic research skills, I located Marcia’s email address and sent her an invitation to be the ‘headliner’ at the first Western Kentucky Book Expo. To my utter amazement, she accepted.
On the evening before the event, my daughter Stephanie and I went to the hotel where we had reserved a block of rooms for our out-of-town authors. We were hosting a meet and greet for them at the hotel, and it was there that I first met Marcia. To be honest, Steph and I were both a little starstruck. Here was a genuine, bonafide celebrity munching from our veggie trays. Within minutes of introducing ourselves to our headlining author, we both knew we’d made a friend for life. Marcia Wallace was one of the most down-to-earth and humble folks we had ever met.
After the meet-and greet, we invited her to the hotel’s restaurant for pizza, where the three of us laughed and joked and told woeful stories about the men in our lives, disappointments that had been dealt to us, and our hopes and dreams for the future. Marcia was not ‘holding court’ as you might have expected from someone with an Emmy on her mantle at home. She was just as eager to hear about our lives as we were to hear more about hers.
She talked about her days on The Bob Newhart Show and her hopes that The Simpsons would be picked up for another season. It seems even Emmy-award winning actresses worry about job security.
Marcia told us about the two great loves of her life, her husband, Dennis Hawley, and their beloved adopted son, Michael. She had lost Denny to pancreatic cancer in 1992 after only six years of marriage. The happiness that had eluded her for most of her adult life had been all too short-lived. I don’t think she ever got over the loss of Denny. It was evident in the quietness that came over her when she spoke about him — and quietness is something that was totally out of character for this awesomely gregarious woman.
In her autobiography, Marcia wrote about the nervous breakdown she’d had while she was working on The Bob Newhart Show and about the kindness shown her by the star during her recovery. She also passionately wrote about her battle with breast cancer. Her brush with death had made her an outspoken advocate for breast cancer awareness.
The day of the book expo arrived, and I was on pins and needles. The event was being backed financially by Scripps Howard, the parent company of the newspaper I managed. My boss had admonished me, “Don’t lose money!”
But I needn’t have worried. At 9 a.m. we opened the doors and stood back as the crowds of book lovers swarmed through. And Marcia’s table was swamped all day by fans wanting to meet her and get a signed copy of her autobiography. She was amazed by the attention. You see — and this is the thing that endeared me to her forever — she didn’t consider herself a celebrity. She identified as a single mother working to get ready to put a son through college. She identified as a single woman hoping to find love again. She identified as an ‘every-woman’.
After that weekend, Marcia and I stayed in touch by email. She was always interested in how Stephanie was doing in her studies at Murray State University, and she told me about how Mikey had decided to pursue film studies at UCLA. We were just two mothers making it day by day.
A couple of years later, the two of us got together again in Bowling Green, Ky., where Marcia was appearing at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest. We met for dinner the night before the event, ordered wine, and began to scan the menu. Marcia kept rubbing at her right eye and complaining that it was hurting her. Finally she closed her menu and said, “You’ve got to take me to a doctor. I’m dying here. My eye is killing me.”
When I asked her what she thought was wrong, she sheepishly admitted that she had put Preparation H under her eyes that morning and thought she may have gotten some in one eye.
Trying not to laugh, I asked, “Exactly why did you put Preparation H under your eyes?”
She explained that it was a trick used by actresses to reduce puffiness under the eyes.
“Joan Collins does it!”, she explained in justification as the waiter retrieved our wine glasses to store in the fridge until we returned from the doctor.
Off we went to one of those strip-mall emergency med centers, where she refused to get on the scale to be weighed by the nurse.
“Just write down FAT! I’m not getting on that scale. I’m here about my eye, which has nothing to do with my weight!”
FYI: she did not get on the scale.
By the time we left, she had the whole place laughing — doctor, nurses, and patients — and the doctor determined that she hadn’t really gotten anything in her eye at all, but rather was suffering like so many others from the springtime allergies common in the Ohio Valley region. Loaded up with meds, it was back to the hotel and our still-chilled wine.
A few years later, she called to let me know she’d be in Frankfort, Ky. for the Kentucky State Book Fair and wanted to know if Steph and I could drive up and meet her there for dinner. We were staying at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, where the book fair was to be held on Saturday. The night before the event, we left the hotel and strolled downtown for dinner at Serafina’s, a popular restaurant and landmark in the city. It was November, very chilly, and a light snow was falling as we walked along past the old state capitol building. Marcia brought us up to date on Mikey’s adventures and quizzed Steph about what was going on in her life.
As we entered the restaurant, the wait staff broke out in grins. It seems that this was the third night in a row that Marcia had eaten there and, like everyone else who ever met her, they had fallen in love with her. Her favorite was a good-looking young guy who knew, without having to ask, exactly what she wanted to drink. He seemed enthralled by her. She flirted shamelessly! We all giggled like silly schoolgirls after he left the table, which led to our topic for the night — men. Marcia had volumes of advice for Stephanie about men and how to handle them.
It was an outrageous girls’ night out that ranks in my #1 spot of ‘Best Girls’ Nights Out Ever’!
The last time I heard from Marcia, she was in the hospital. She had gone in for additional breast surgery and had developed an infection.
“I have a ‘Franken-tit'”, she wrote in an email — always trying to lighten the mood when needed.
But I had a bad feeling about it.
I saw the notice in the newspaper. Marcia died from pneumonia and sepsis on October 25, 2013, aged 70, a week before her 71st birthday.
Steph and I were stunned, saddened — I can’t even think of the right words to describe how we felt. I felt the universe had somehow shifted a bit.
So, back to the title of this essay. The word ‘muse’ is defined as a guiding spirit and/or a source of inspiration. And Marcia Wallace was my muse.
Marcia taught me it was okay to be different, outrageous, and funny. She taught me it was acceptable to color outside of the lines. I learned it was alright — and even empowering — to stand out in a crowd. She showed me it was permitted to be sad, to grieve losses in life, to rejoice over-abundantly at the joys.
In short, she showed me how to discard others’ expectations of me and instead to paint my own life with the colors that make me happy. Who I have become as a woman, a mother, a friend, and a writer, I owe in large part to my humble, red-headed muse.